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Commanding to Coaching: Transitioning Successfully From Military Service

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

One of the toughest career transitions can be moving from serving in the military to becoming a civilian leader or employee, especially for those who’ve been commanding officers or who’ve served for many years. It can be a culture shock for someone who is used to giving and receiving orders to move into a work environment in the private or corporate sectors where the “command and control” approach may be perceived as too directive, aggressive, or stifling.

A recent coaching client, a division director at a transit authority, came to the organization after serving more than 30 years in the United States Navy. He’d been at the organization for about a year when he came to see me and was struggling with his communication and leadership style, relying on what he was used to while in the service, to the point that a formal investigation of complaints occurred. His behavior was seen as intimidating, forceful, and directive, including documented use of swearing (like a proverbial sailor, no less). Needless to say, he had to change his approach and demonstrate to the CEO that he could be successful.

Like this director needed to do, in making this type of transition, it’s important to recognize that the old adage of “what got you here won’t get you there” applies. The skill set honed while in the military was probably a great fit in that environment yet won’t serve you well, most likely, in your new role or workplace. An important shift to make in a leadership role is to take a coaching approach, moving from telling and directing to listening and guiding.

It’s also important as an individual contributor to get comfortable with being coached (or maybe just left to your own devices) rather than being told exactly what to do. Many organizations expect you to figure things out on your own, often in ambiguous situations, and may not have much patience or time to explicitly direct your activities.

Here are some tips for making this type of transition successfully, regardless of your role:


Practice and continue developing your listening skills. Whether to a direct report or a colleague, it’s important to listen to other people’s point of view and concerns. You don’t have to agree with their perspective, but you do need to understand it to collaborate effectively, innovate, and solve problems.

Express empathy. Likewise, once you’ve listened thoughtfully, use phrases such as, “It sounds like . . .,” “It seems as though . . .,” “If I understand you correctly, you . . .,” to show empathy. Again, you don’t have to agree; but people will appreciate that you understood their viewpoint and are willing to consider their thoughts and perspective. It’s providing a release valve, a great gift to give.


Assume the best intentions. It’s unlikely that anyone you work with wakes up in the morning and says, “I’m going to be difficult to work with and underperform today!” Chances are, most people know what to do and how to do it—it’s the execution that needs work. Consider how you can influence and coach for a positive outcome for an individual, your team, and the organization rather than assume colleagues are aware of, or are intentionally engaging in, bad behavior. Have a conversation to see what’s happening and check your negative assumptions.

Let go of being right. It’s not about having your orders obeyed or expecting your ideas to be the ones that are adopted without question anymore. Just because you propose a solution doesn’t mean it’s the best answer, regardless of how great you think it is. Provide opportunities for co-workers to challenge you, ask questions, and propose alternate solutions. You and the organization will be better off for it, ideally creating innovative approaches to issues.

Lead with curiosity. Practice using open-ended questions from a learning perspective and taking a coaching approach. It’s important when working with anyone to understand their motivations, work, or communication style, the strengths they bring, and their experiences that help form how they function so you can work well together and adjust how you interact as needed. Taking a “one size fits all” angle can work against you. No two people need the same approach. Getting curious about who they are and how best to interact benefits everyone.

While it can be challenging at times, bringing your military experience and education into a different work environment can greatly benefit any organization that understands the positive contributions you can make. It may just take a bit of time to adjust. Being willing and able to make some changes, if needed, will demonstrate to any employer the integrity and value you bring.

About the Author

Lisa Downs, ACC (Associate Certified Coach), CPLP (Certified Professional in Learning and Performance), is the owner of New Aspect Coaching, specializing in career transition and leadership coaching and consulting. She focuses on supporting those looking to transition into leadership roles, figuring out what’s next in their careers, and considering what potential retirement could look like. Lisa's worked as a learning professional for EMC² (now Dell Technologies), the Boeing Company, PEMCO Insurance, and T-Mobile and spent six years in the accounting industry prior to going independent in her work in 2015.

An authorized partner of Everything DiSC, Lisa is certified to administer and interpret a variety of targeted assessment tools, including individual and team profiles as well as 360-degree leadership tools. She’s also a Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (MBTI) certified practitioner and a TotalSDI (Strengths Deployment Inventory) certified facilitator. Lisa is a certified physician development coach. She is the author of a series of books aimed at helping learning professionals design and facilitate courses on listening, time management, and negotiating.

Lisa is the immediate past president of the Women Business Owners organization in Seattle, having served as its president in 2018 and membership chair in 2016-2017. She is also a former leadership coach with the Center for Leadership and Strategic Thinking within the Foster School of Business at the University of Washington and a former board member of the Association for Talent Development (ATD) and designer of its ATD Expert Coach program. Lisa is a member of the Forbes Coaches Council. She has a master’s degree in education. Based in Redmond, WA, Lisa works with coaching clients regardless of location.

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As a veteran, I can attest to how hard it can be to make the transition from active duty military member to civilian. Much of what we are and who we are never truly leaves us. It is "us" 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and helps us "survive" a military career. There are many military leaders just like this individual and many who are not like this. I saw a dramatic shift in how leaders led and managers managed over the course of my career. Some never truly change, great ones did.
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I'm not comfortable with the stereotypes perpetuated in this article. The example refers to someone/anyone with low emotional intelligence who hopefully benefitted from leadership coaching. The aberrent leadership weaknesses and toxic behavior described isn't representative of the adaptive and transformative leadership styles displayed by most former military commanders. We know "commanding" is about much more than giving orders. It's leading, learning, teaching, coaching and mentoring - 24/7.
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